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Definition: ballooning from Dictionary of Sports and Games Terminology

(sport) racing or competing in hot-air balloons, with contests of altitude, distance, duration of flight, accuracy of landing, and the like

Summary Article: Ballooning from Science in the Enlightenment: An Encyclopedia

The most dramatic, if not the most significant, evidence of humanity’s increasing power over nature in the Enlightenment was manned flight by balloon. Initial development of flying balloons was due to two paper-manufacturing brothers in the French town of Annonay, Joseph-Michel Montgolfier (1740–1810) and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier (1745–1799). Both had some scientific education and shared in the movement toward state-supported technical experimentation common in late-eighteenth-century France. Joseph-Michel seems to have originated the idea of flying balloons, influenced by the discovery of different gases, some of which were lighter than air. The early balloons, however, used heated air rather than a specific gas. Hot air expanded to a lesser density than the surrounding atmosphere, although there was some confusion over whether hot air or smoke was the lifting agent. By the late 1770s Joseph-Michel was making calculations and performing small experiments, but the practical Jacques-Étienne was the one in charge of the plant and its resources. Jacques-Étienne at first dismissed his brother’s activities, but by late 1782 the two were working together. On 4 June 1783 the brothers demonstrated an unmanned hot-air balloon before the provincial Estates of Vivarais.

Word quickly reached Paris, and the inevitable step of appointing a commission from the Royal Academy of Sciences followed. The group invited Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier to Paris, where he leveraged his newfound celebrity to the advantage of the Montgolfiers and their paper mill. The experimental physicist Jacques-Alexandre-César Charles (1746–1823) on 27 August successfully launched a small balloon whose lift came from hydrogen rather than hot air. (Charles’s balloon research ultimately led to the formulation of “Charles’s law” of the relation of pressure, temperature, and volume in an enclosed gas.) Montgolfier’s 12 September launch of a large hot-air balloon failed due to its destruction by sudden rain. Another launch before the king and court at the Royal Palace of Versailles on 20 September successfully carried a sheep, rooster, and duck. The next step was to carry a human being. The first people to fly were a young man named Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier (1756–1785), who had actively promoted the idea, and his friend François Laurent, Marquis d’Arlandes. On 21 November they flew for about seventeen minutes at a height of about 1,500 feet. (In 1785, Pilâtre de Rozier became the first balloonist killed, when his combination of a hydrogen and a hot-air balloon blew up in an unsuccessful attempt to cross the English Channel.) Charles continued to work on the hydrogen balloon, which had the advantage of avoiding the cooling problem, and reached a height of 9,000 feet on 1 December. By this time, ballooning was becoming a European craze, with free speculation that humans would eventually reach the Moon and the planets via balloon. The first British balloon ascents took place in 1784, and the first American ascent in 1793. The first woman ascended in 1798. Hydrogen balloons won the struggle with hot-air balloons.

Ballooning, whether hot air or hydrogen, presented a number of technical problems, principally in the area of regulating rise and descent. Leonhard Euler’s last calculation, found after his death on his chalkboard, was about the mechanics of the rise and fall of balloons. The one to solve the problem was the French engineer Jean-Baptiste-Marie-Charles Meusnier de la Place (1754–1793). Meusnier suggested that the balloon incorporate a bladder, which could take on or discharge air from the atmosphere, thus providing a way to stabilize the balloon rather than oscillating between rising by throwing off ballast and descending by releasing gas from the balloon itself. His work won him admission to the Royal Academy of Sciences.

The use of the balloon for science reached a peak in 1804. Three attempts to measure the density, humidity, and temperature of the upper atmosphere as well as the performance of magnetic, electrical, and optical equipment took place that year. The first was carried out by the Imperial Academy of Sciences of St. Petersburg, with little success. Two French attempts involved Joseph-Louis Gay-Lussac and the physicist Jean-Baptiste Biot (1774–1862). On the second expedition, carried out by Gay-Lussac alone, he reached a height of 23,000 feet, the highest yet reached. The ascents did reveal new data about the atmospheric and electrical conditions at great height, but interest in scientific ballooning waned thereafter.

See also Popularization; Royal Academy of Sciences; Technology and Engineering.

  • Bacon, John MacKenzie. The Dominion of the Air: The Story of Aerial Navigation. Philadelphia: David Mackay, 1903.
  • Gillispie, Charles Coulston. Science and Polity in France at the End of the Old Regime. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980.
  • © 2003 by William E. Burns

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